Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan: a Noble, Ordinary Hero

“They shared a long silence. ‘What do we do, Father?’

‘We have faith, Pino. We have faith and continue to do what is right.’”

Mark Sullivan, Beneath a Scarlet Sky

I’m deeply indebted to historical fiction as an entire genre, and owe a hearty thanks to some of these books that have reintroduced me to the wonder of storytelling this last year.

Among these more recent, great historical-fiction reads is Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Set in Italy near the end of World War II, this tale sends readers on a journey through the eyes of Pino Lella, an Italian teenager.

Pino. The boy who led a Jewish underground railroad movement and acted as a spy for Allied forces. Pino, the unsung hero who helped end a World War and lived most his life after quiet about it.

The Story

Pino Lella is only a teenager when Nazis overtake his home Milan. As the hand of the German forces grows stronger in his community, Pino is sent to live at a Catholic convent in the mountains.

Just after arriving to the convent, Pino is asked to lead Jewish refugees on secretive, strenuous hikes through the dangerous passes over the Alps and into the safe zone of Switzerland. For months, all though the winter and beyond, Pino operates this underground railroad leading dozens of people to safety over the treacherous passes of the mountains.

When Pino is summoned back home to be drafted for service, his family forces him to join German efforts in order to ride out the nearing end of the War. He protests at first, but what he soon discovers is an opportunity to serve as a spy for Allied forces as Pino becomes a personal driver for a Nazi general.

In this remarkable journey of courage and hope, Pino Lella affects the entire trajectory of the War by daily putting his life on the line for a cause bigger than himself. He falls in love, fiercely protects, and never gives up on the good that can be found in the world.

Here’s the Wild Thing: It’s a True Story

Beneath a Scarlet Sky was born after 11 years of extensive research by author Mark Sullivan, who estimates that 80%-90% of the story true. Over a decade of study, interviews, and simply being in Pino Lella’s presence culminated into this book. This is a treasure for us as there is a not a lot of written documentation of World War II in Italy. Who knows how many stories we’ve missed; even for Mr. Lella, his story had gone untold for decades.

This is Why I Love Historical Fiction

We can pick up a history textbook if we want to learn about WWII. But, there is something about storytelling that affects our brains in totally different ways. Suddenly we’re not just reading facts and summaries crammed on a few pages, but we’re in the story too.

We’re on our way to the market, walking past Nazi generals with guns in hands and swastikas banded. We’re knocked to the ground, covering our ears at the ear-splitting sound of explosion around us. We’re hiking snow trails across the Alps, leading refugees to safety. Suddenly, we are the refugee, fleeing for safety while wearing a target on our back.

I gained more empathy for the effects of WWII in this book than I ever did reading countless textbook pages. By delving into Pino’s story, I met Nazis and Jewish refugees. My tears fell at the weight of it all, and I rejoiced at the victories. No longer was WWII a black and white stain on our world’s story, but it became this nuanced tapestry made up of real people who fought for its end in indescribable ways.

You can’t learn that in a textbook. It takes the patience of hearing a story to gain that sort of understanding.

“But we can’t stop loving our fellow man, Pino, because we’re frightened. If we lose love, all is lost.”

Mark Sullivan

Retracing the Steps: a Guide for Reading

As I read, I retraced the steps of Pino by looking at maps and searching photos. I found what I believe is the Catholic convent he lived in (or dang close to it). I saw the lake he led his underground railroad around. I saw his home city, and the cathedral that represented hope and safety for him. I saw the same streets where Pino Lella fell in love, wept, witnessed atrocities, and fought for restoration.

With each discovery, as I looked at each picture and Google earth image, I thought, “He was there. He stood there. He stood up for his country and for peace there.”

This is another beautiful opportunity historical fiction grants us. I created a Pinterest board of photos and links that I found helpful while reading. For me, it made the reading so much richer as I really delved into Italy in WWII. If that sounds fun and nerdy to you too, check out the board to see some of the sights referenced in the story.

Final Word: an Excellent Five Stars

If you look for them, you’ll certainly find the critics of this book. But as far as I’m concerned, this was an excellent read and I plan to keep it on my shelf and recommend to others for years to come. Mark Sullivan honored the story of Pino Lella with his careful crafting of this quiet hero’s journey; he did the world a service by sharing it.

I will admit: it wasn’t Sullivan’s writing style that captivated me. I wasn’t drawn to this book because it boasts incredible dialogue or beautifully moving poetic style. Actually, what drew me in was the unavoidable message at the center of every page that every breathe we have left is a breath of purpose.

Even the ordinary breaths.

Pino Lella thought his story was ordinary. Plain. Not worth rehashing. But here is the truth: there are no ordinary days that don’t make a difference. He showed us that the most remarkable stories happen by taking one step after another, making decisions one at a time. We could be living in the middle of a World War, saving lives and communicating critical information, and never realize the impact we’re making.

Pino Lella’s story promises us that even in the darkest of days love is there. His story is evidence that there is more good at work than bad. Don’t get me wrong – times are tough. But, we have a choice to make. We can either be victimized by it, or fight courageously to see the good.

Every step we walk has the power to change the entire trajectory of someone’s future. Let’s dare believe that. And as we take our steps, one after the other, we follow that young Italian’s example. We continue –

to have faith,

to do what is right,

and above all,

find the strength to believe there is good woven in every day

“You know, my young friend, I will be ninety years old next year, and life is still a constant surprise to me. We never know what will happen next, what we will see, and what important person will come into our life, or what important person we will lose. Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy. But after everything, and even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive, we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed.”

Pino Lella

The Enemy Didn’t Win This Round

What I Would Have Told Myself Yesterday

Sometimes your 1st graders will ask you to hang out, so you’ll say where and they’ll say CiCi’s Pizza, and you’ll say when, and they’ll say Saturday morning.

You’ll think it’s crazy, but you’ll commit to it.

So when you show up on Saturday morning – promptly at 10:30, the exact time CiCi’s opens — the girls will be waiting in their apartment complex parking lot. They’ll be wearing their African and church dresses with puffer, winter jackets to protect them from the wind and sprinkling rain, even though it’s over 70 degrees. Their faces will light up when they see you. They’ll wave and run to your car, probably because a part of them feared you wouldn’t show up.

And before you know it, after checking in with parents and exchanging phone numbers, you’ll be buckling in 3 girls in booster seats in the backseat of your car. You’ll struggle, because goodness, can a car really hold 3 booster seats side by side? You’ll struggle a little more, and the girls will clap for you when you finally hear the click of the buckles. You’ll wonder how parents do it every time.

It’s only a 2 minute drive. Close enough to walk, and you probably would have walked if it wasn’t rainy. When they ask on that short drive over if they can roll the windows down and how much pizza they can eat, you’ll be so happy to tell them, “Yes, and as much as you want!”

And as you have a contest to see who can eat the most, you’ll play iSpy and teach them the words written on media scattered around the restaurant. They’ll ask you questions about life, and you’ll hold onto this moment, already excited to share these memories with them when they’re older.

You’ll be sad when their tummies are full, and realize it’s time to go back home. When they say on the drive to their apartment, “Ms. Brianna, are you driving us to Africa?” and giggle, your heart will break a little because they’re so little and have already been through so much.

What I’m Telling Myself Now

Really? This is crazy. I can’t believe I get the privilege of walking with little ones, with the unwavering hope that they will rise with resiliency into remarkable adults one day. Going to CiCi’s Pizza is a big deal, and not something they get to do often. I really can’t believe I get to be the one to stand in the gap, and do that for them.

But to be completely honest: it’s hard. This is my calling. And yet, a lot of times I don’t feel like going. I face inwardly, struggling to look through someone else’s lens. I just don’t want to go. I didn’t work it in my budget. My to-do list is long. Looking ahead, and knowing that these little moments have the potential to love these kiddos to a stable adulthood – it can feel hopeless.

I usually have to pep talk myself, and ask the Lord to help me. He does, every time, and I’ve never left disappointed that I chose to give time to my kids.

It’s no surprise to me that I can’t love or serve well without God. That – I’ve known that for a while.

However, what I’m also learning is I can’t love or serve well without people.

Those booster seats? Given to me by mommas who didn’t need theirs anymore. When I called on help to become more accessible to my students, women stepped in and offered to literally just give me theirs. Within minutes, I had enough seats for my car and to share with coworkers striving for the accessibility.

The idea to go in the first place? God giving my girls the courage to ask to hang out. I don’t know why they want to hang out with an “old lady” like me, but I’m glad they asked. This is not my work; this is Christ at work in me and my students to help us build relationships.

Encouragement along the way? My incredible coworkers who consistently give so much of themselves to their work and our kids. They are walking testaments of the power our Father can weave through us if we show up, trusting him to provide our way. I look up to, and model much of my work after them. They are my wise counsel, and the ones I strive alongside.  

And the motivation to go when I’m tempted to stay? Certainly born out of a prayer from family and friends who have surrounded me, and shown interest in my work. Undoubtedly, this is the answer of a God who has been faithful to both hear and act.

Go, But Not Alone

Do something today. Anything. Because we know that the enemy loves to rip us from sweet moments. He knows that by tempting us to stay away from the things we love – by filling us with exhaustion, fear, worry, and honestly, lack of motivation – that he has blocks us from loving what we love to love.

It’s so stupid. Don’t fall for it. Do the thing on your heart, the same one that you are the most least-willing to do today, knowing that it has been planted for a reason. Don’t reason your way out of it. Show up. The fruit waiting for you on the other side of it is so sweet.

We won’t make memories with our fast-growing 1st graders that make us eager to tell their older selves about this time together, if we don’t commit to going to CiCi’s Pizza in the first place.

And believe this: you need people to serve people.

Don’t go at it alone. You’ll go so much farther if you choose to invite people in. Let them give you booster seats. Let them pray over you. Let them ask question, and be patient enough to answer. Stand humbled and in awe of those wiser and admirable around you.

It’s hard to serve and love well; it’s even harder to do it alone. There’s more to say. But the best, most simple thought I have for you on this rainy, cozy Saturday is to let people love you as you love people too.

Writing Poetry

I stopped by the busy apartment complex where most of my students live. Kids chased each other through the grass, and mommas donning brightly colored patterns walked with babies on their hips.

Whether or not I knew them, I waved at them as I slowly bumped over the humps and pot holes of the parking lot. I always do. As I bumped and waved along, I tried to review what little Spanish I know. But I barely made it past hola.

On a mission to speak to a set of Guatemalan parents, I kept driving toward that apartment and trying to remember what came after hola. It didn’t take me long to admit that there was no chance I was going to have a successful conversation in Spanish without help. There was no way I was ready to knock on that door.

And where else could I go but to the front door of a 4th grader?

Making a quick pit stop, I pulled my car around to a different building in the complex. I knocked on the door, and was immediately greeted by two smiling girls that are new to my summer school program. I asked them to tag along to visit another family a couple of buildings down from them. You might call it a moment of humility, even desperation, but the excitement on their faces called it joy as they looked at each other with wide eyes.

“Let’s go ask!” they said, quickly turning and running to their mom. Soon enough they were lacing up their shoes, and heading out to the door to the day’s great adventure: helping Ms. Brianna talk.

The sun beat down as our strides shadowed the pavement beneath us, every stride closer to our mission together. When we finally reached the covered stairs to that Guatemalan family’s apartment, I lagged behind the girls as they took the steps two at a time before me. And finally, we arrived outside the home I had originally come to see.

Doublechecking the address, I began to knock on the door next to the box of mud-caked construction boots. We knocked again. No answer. Another time. And no answer.

In between knocks, the girls talked more. The girls hardly noticed how their speedy, high pitched voices filled the silence in the corridor. They didn’t hear how our knocks echoed past the door into an unmoving room. They didn’t realize how many minutes passed as we waited outside the door. No, they didn’t notice. There were too many other things to talk about. Cartwheels and summer school, movies and Starbucks.

I had to announce the news.

“Well, girls. I don’t think they’re here. We better head back home,” I told them. Their faces dropped when I told them it’d been nearly 5 minutes and the door remained closed. They really had no idea.

“Do you have anyone else we can visit?” they asked, obviously not wanting to go back home. I shook my head no, and we turned around. We retraced our steps back down the stairs toward their building again, still chatting along the way. Lines and cracks on the pavement passed below us as we followed the sidewalk past the homes of their neighbors.

“What’s your favorite subject in school?” I asked.

“English. I love to write,” one of the girls said. I told her that was amazing and that I liked to write too (which she obviously thought was the coolest thing ever). She went on about the other stories she has written, and what she’s currently working on. She’s young, but already her portfolio is growing.

She talked, and images of my childhood – long bus rides spent gazing out the window, stretching myself across carpeted floor to read, journaling every night – passed through my head. I thought I was the only 4th grader who watched the world around me in pure wonder, and crafted moving lines in my head as it passed. I think I’ve gone my whole life thinking I was the weird one. Maybe this is how all writers are born.

I thought I was the only 4th grader who watched the world around me in pure wonder, and crafted moving lines in my head as it passed. I think I’ve gone my whole life thinking I was the weird one. Maybe this is how all writers are born.

I asked her about her writing and she told me about a poem she’d been working on for 3 months, among other short stories. But that poem, she was working on getting it just right and came back to it often.

“This girl has more discipline than I do. She’s years younger than me, but she’s already figured it out. Writing, as is any good thing worth pursuing, requires days and days of going back to the page, and spilling words even when it’s hard. And she already knows that,” I immediately thought.

“That’s amazing. Keep working on it. I want to read it when you finish,” was all I said.

“Okay! My friend reads it for me. She helps me,” she said, pulling the other girl in close for a sideways hug as we continued down the sidewalk. The quiet one smiled shyly, and I saw so much of myself in her too: the writer with a vision for the world, and the diligence to pen it and the encourager who wants to see people do amazing things, and will help people get there.  

We talked on that sidewalk until I had only given myself approximately 3 minutes to get to my next ESL class. It was hard to leave a conversation when I felt like I was learning so much about these people – these young, growing people. And, I was being pumped with inspiration in my own life too.

I gotta get back to the book tonight.

Need to make sure I wake up with my alarm to write in the morning.

I need a friend to read my work too.

Even when it sucks, I need to come back to it.

I can’t give up.

There are infinite beautiful things to share, and it can bring joy to someone.

And all that simply because my chatty 4th grade friend spoke up about her writing. She showed me how to speak of my craft with confidence and joy, and how to arrive to the paper with diligence often. I think this was the day that I believed, in real ways, that kids are capable too. Full of ideas and wonder, dreams and the ability to chase them down. They have voices, and you might be surprised at how life-giving and powerful they can be. We can learn from them.

Fourth graders can write poetry too.

I Try, I Try

We tightened the laces and practiced the art of walking on blades.

We probably looked like a mismatched group – a few white women with nearly 40 middle school students representing multiple countries around the world. Brown skin, black skin, white skin. Tall socks with athletic shorts covered some, and others had come in hoodies and gloves.

Despite whatever differences appeared on the outside, we had at least one thing in common: an hour of ice skating ahead of us. Just on the other side of the glass outstretched an empty rink, glowing bright white from the reflection of the lights above. And there we waited on that weird rubber-like floor, a buzz of eager anticipation filling our space.

When the gates opened, we took turns stepping out onto the ice. Most students entered with timidity holding on to the sides of the rink and reaching for stronger hands, but a few boldly set out and headed for the center of the smooth ice.

I clumsily moved across the ice, calling after students, offering encouragement and a hand along the way. As I went between students, I noticed the boy in the purple hoodie at the gate.

As I helped others, I kept glancing back at him. Watching, I realized that at the gate was a war between going and staying. Clutching the wall, he’d cross the threshold to put one skate on the ice just to quickly bring it back to the safety of the floor. This went on for nearly half an hour. He’d get tired, sit on the bench, and jump up just a couple minutes later to return to the war at the gate. Over and over. Classmates and friends came and went, but for the most part, he was alone.

He waited there.

I skated over to him, hoping I’d reach him before he left the gate for the bench outside again. I made it over to him in time to see his nervous routine up close. “No, no! It’s scary!” he’d say, as soon as the single blade hit the ice. There was no one else there to encourage that second blade to meet the other. Only the boy in the purple hoodie, who was both talking himself into and out of ice skating.

Much later in the day, long after we’d left, I would think about this moment. How many times have I battled with this tension of wanting yet not wanting? How often have I simultaneously danced with courage and fear? How familiar did this routine of flirting with leaving the safety of the gate look in my own life?

But in this moment, I thought only of convincing him to come. I knew he’d regret it later if he didn’t. “I’ll stay with you,” I promised him, as I led him to the wall. Getting his first foot on the ice was pretty easy, but it was the second foot that struggled.

“No, no! It’s too scary!” he repeated, clumsily turning around to meet the gate again. There he went with that dance again. He clutched the wall, and I reached out.

“Come on, I’ll go with you. The wall will be on your right, and I’ll be on your left. Let’s make it to that line. Then, if you don’t like it, we’ll turn around and come back,” I told him, pointing to a line on the ice just a couple yards away.

Hand still outstretched toward him, he took it after barely a single thought. And in that one moment, he made the choice to let his desire to try the new, hard thing; he overpowered the fear that told him to stay.

His hand squeezed mine and his eyes were fixed on his feet, we made it to that line slowly.

“Look, you did it! Do you think we can make it to there?” I said, pointing to a picture just a few yards further on the rink’s wall.

He nodded and we set off, again arriving within seconds.

Having left the dance at the gate, this is how we got around the entire rink: I’d point to a goal, he’d fix his gaze on it, and we’d go there together. Repeat.

Somewhere halfway around the rink, I challenged him to turn around to see how far we’d come. He cautiously turned, still gripping my hand and the wall, and let out a small shriek. “Oh my – no!” he groaned, a smile of accomplishment spreading over his apprehensive voice.

I smiled back, “You’re doing awesome. Do you want to keep going?”

“I try,” he said. Those words became his anthem during these laps around the rink. He repeated them over and over.

I try. Okay. I try.

We were on our second time around the rink when he fell for the first time. We were still moving slow, so he landed softly. He exclaimed, “OW! MY BUTT!”

I chuckled to myself and clapped for him, “Yay! You did it! You fell for the first time!” I reached out my hand to help lift him up. The same fear that held him at the gate threatened to keep his bottom sitting on the ice. But he made a statement to fear when he got back to his feet, dusted off, and set his focus toward the next goal.  

I stayed with him. We started making people our focus points. We’d fix our eyes on another teacher, and skate over to them to show them how much we had skated. Eventually, that led us to the center of the rink. Another friend had joined us by then, and the boys laughed and helped each other. But I kept to my promise, and I didn’t leave his side.

When the loud buzzer echoed loudly in the icy room and 00:00 flashed overhead, he looked up confused.

“Time to go?” he asked. I nodded, and we went to the gate together; he was one of the last kids to get off the ice. (A combination of being a very slow skater and being disappointed to leave so soon.)

But what my friend in the purple hoodie couldn’t see yet is how those few minutes changed him. A different kid came off the ice that morning. This wasn’t the same boy that had let fear make up his mind; he stood a little more courageous.

He could have stayed at the gate, and never come out on the ice.

In some ways, it would have been easier to say no. He didn’t have to keep going after that first goal was met – after all, we weren’t that far from the gate. Even when he fell, the pain of the moment wanted to keep him down. When we turned around that first time midway around the rink, fear wanted him to go back to the starting point and stay there.

But he didn’t listen. Instead, in brief moments of decision, he chose to keep going. Over and over.

In a hour of declaration led by a middle schooler set on being brave, perseverance rang victorious as we accomplished the hard task of successfully ice skating.

Hey, honestly. I needed that lesson as much as he did.

I needed to witness again what it looks like when courage speaks louder than fear, and the kind of good, faithful friend perseverance is to us. It molds and refines us, giving reward to our work and assuring us it’s not pointless. Without perseverance, giving up would be easy and we’d always be stuck with the feeling of regretting what we didn’t do.

So, here’s to another day of leaving the gate.

This is where we say yes to courage, silencing our fears long enough to take the first step on the ice. We’re afraid of falling and our clumsiness, yes, but not ruled by it. We do the difficult thing. We listen to the whisper. The whisper that tells us to do exactly what scares us the most in that moment, knowing that the whisper has more beautiful reasons for calling us out. We’d regret missing it.

The longer we practice listening to that voice, the more recognizable it becomes. Here’s where we set our eyes on a goal – no matter how small – and keep going. We stand up, dust off, and skate again believing that the ground hurts a little less with every fall.

No matter what your first (or even continuing) steps look like today, not one of them is without purpose. Even if the best thing they can offer is giving courage the louder voice, then it’s worth it. You are being refined. Just like my friend in the purple hoodie, you get to come back a little taller after it.